Set the Table with Local Meat for a Crowd
Written onAugust 19 , 2013
When you’re committed to eating humanely raised, local meat and you’re getting some friends together for some good eats, chances are you’re not going to throw 15 $20 steaks on your backyard barbecue. We all might like to pretend that we just won the lottery, but it’s no easy feat to blow a whole paycheck serving humane, sustainable food to our nearest and dearest.
While it’s a simple fact that farmers who raise animals ethically while earning a living wage need to charge more for their meat than their CAFO brethren, it’s also a simple fact that the cost of sustainable meat doesn’t mean you or your dinner guests need to go veg at every group gathering. Choosing cheaper cuts of meat and fewer of them means you can feed your whole herd on a manageable dollar.
Whether you’re entertaining visitors or just need some leftovers for your homegrown crowd, some of my recipes might fit the bill.
Ground beef is the cheapest and most versatile cut of meat in the grass-fed world. And its most obvious preparation is the good old-fashioned hamburger. Grass-fed beef’s more intense flavor really sings in a grilled burger. I sometimes feel like a cheater when I accept acclaim for a fantastic hamburger when all I did was buy some utterly fantastic beef. The lower fat content in grass-fed beef means that your burger is going to tighten up into more of a ball than the higher-in-fat supermarket varieties. So make sure to form your patties just about as thin and flat as your hands can handle. (Adding an indentation in the middle with the balls of your hands at the very end is even better.) I like to season up my burgers with some salt, pepper, and spices of whimsy. Pretty much any spice combo that you enjoy eating in savory dishes is going to taste good in a burger, so you can design your burger flavor to your personal tastes.
Another great use for ground beef is the meatball. Meatballs were not one of my childhood staples, but they’ve recently become a grown-up favorite. They are infinitely adaptable to whatever ingredients are in season or on hand and are a fantastic way to stretch a single pound of ground beef or pork into little balls of yumminess.
Fall Apple Meatballs
2 Tbs. olive oil or butter
1/2 cup minced cabbage
1/4 cup minced celery or celeriac
1 small apple, minced (skin on or off)
1 small onion, minced
1 small carrot, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground pepper
1 lb. ground beef
1 cup bread crumbs
1) Preheat the oven to 350 °F. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and grease liberally.
2) In a large pan, over medium heat, sauté together the olive oil, cabbage, celeriac, apple, onion, carrot, salt, and pepper until vegetables have softened. Let cool.
3) In a medium bowl, beat the eggs with a fork until well combined. Add the ground beef, bread crumbs, and vegetables and mix until everything is evenly incorporated.
4) Roll the mixture into approximately 26 evenly sized, 1.5-inch balls and space evenly on the prepared cookie sheet. Bake meatballs for 25 minutes or until they’re cooked through, rotating the tray once at 15 minutes or so.
Sausage is a tasty step up from hamburger. It is plenty versatile and usually reasonably priced. Recently I was standing in a local food co-op eyeing some particularly tasty-looking local cornmeal and trying to figure out how to work it into me and my man’s dinner plans; we also needed a dish that would make some leftover lunches. We had some sausage thawed, and while I wasn’t sure if cornbread casserole was a “thing,” I decided that it sounded tasty and I could make it work. The internet told me that cornbread casserole was indeed a thing, but I still decided to go in my own direction. This made some undoubtedly fabulous lunches (especially with some ketchup or hot sauce on the side). Ground beef or pork would work great in this dish as well, if you’d prefer it to the sausage.
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 cup cabbage or bell peppers, sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced into coins
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. olive oil, butter, or bacon fat
1 lb. hot Italian sausage
1 16 oz. can cooked black beans
12 oz. frozen or fresh corn
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup whole spelt or whole wheat flour
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 cup butter, melted and slightly cooled
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 Tbs. maple syrup (optional)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup shredded cheddar, parmesan, or feta
1/4 cup chopped chipotles (optional)
1) Preheat oven to 350 °F. Grease a 9x13 casserole dish.
2) In a large pan, sauté together the garlic, onion, cabbage, carrot, salt and olive oil until the vegetables have started to soften. Remove and discard the sausage casing and crumble sausage into the pan. Cook, stirring often, until the sausage is cooked through. Mix in the beans and corn and add mixture into the prepared casserole dish.
3) In a medium bowl, mix together the cornmeal, spelt flour, salt, and baking soda. Make a well in the center and add the butter, eggs, maple syrup, buttermilk, cheddar, and chipotles. Mix thoroughly and pour cornbread batter over the sausage mixture. Bake casserole at 350 °F for 30 minutes or until the cornbread is cooked through and turning golden.
Flank steak and skirt steak are two delicious cheaper cuts that can provide great accompaniment to a larger dish. Tacos and fajitas are two fabulous vessels for these muscly cuts. Both cuts can be quite tough and chewy, so I recommend brining or marinating them for roughly an hour before grilling them (or cooking sections on a stovetop). Then make sure to thinly slice them across the grain. Slicing with the grain will give you inedible muscle, but slicing across the grain means that the knife is doing the hard work and your mouth can just enjoy the flavor. My favorite way to use flank steak is on top of a huge dinner salad packed with lots of veggies, hard-boiled egg slices, and cheese.
Chicken is the cheapie of the conventional meat world, but it’s one of the pricier splurges in the sustainable world. Besides its premium per-pound price, a truly free-range chicken is usually sold as a whole bird, rather than in parts, and those birds range from 4 to 6 lbs. (rather than the tiny 3-lb. factory birds from the supermarket). But this offers the perfect makings for beer-can chicken. Beer-can chicken is my important company dinner mainstay and has been for years. It’s hard to mess up. (I once forgot to set the cooking timer and the bird’s internal temperature climbed to 200 degrees; while slightly dry, it was still quite servable).
The one-hour-plus cooking time means you can actually spend time with your company once they arrive, rather than being tethered to the stove. Use your favorite homemade or store-bought spice rub for this chicken and use whatever convenient non-soda drink that comes in a can (I like juices). The important part about the beer can is the can and the liquid, not so much the beer.
My absolute favorite part of cooking a whole chicken is being able to use every available part. I always shred up the leftover meat to use in salads, soups, burritos, pastas, etc. Then I put the carcass in a huge stock pot with leftover vegetable bits (I freeze my veggie scraps and poultry bones until I’m ready to use them) and boil it all with a bit of salt to make a ton of tasty broth. So an ”expensive” local chicken can actually be a part of weeks, if not months, of dishes.
1 4–6 lb. chicken with gizzards removed
2 qts. cool water
1/2 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup spice rub
1 can of drink
1) Place your chicken in a good-quality plastic bag with no holes and place the bag in a large bowl or pot. Mix the salt and water thoroughly and pour the brine over the chicken. Pull the bag up tight around the bird and close it with a twist tie. (If there isn’t enough brine to cover the bird, make more in the same ratio.)Place it all in the fridge and soak for 1 hour to overnight.
2) Move one oven rack to the lowest notch in your oven and remove any other racks. Preheat oven to 350°F.
3) Remove the chicken from the brine, pat dry, and coat with spice rub. Open your can and drink approximately half of the contents. With a pointy can opener (churchkey), make two more openings in the top of the can. Place your can in the center of a large baking dish or a pan with sides. Lower the rear end of the chicken over the can. The can and chicken legs will form a tripod to hold it steady.
4) Bake the chicken for 1 to 11/2 hours, depending on the size, rotating the pan gently halfway through, until a thermometer inserted between the thigh and body registers 160 °F. Let the chicken rest for 5 to 10 minutes after removing it from the oven. Remove the can and enjoy!
Eating the meat of animals who lived good lives and provided a good living to their owners is do-able and delicious and can be cost effective. And folding your friends and family into a sustainable and nourishing food system doesn’t have to mean hitting them over the head. You can lure them in with delicious promise and an unerring sense of yum.